“Life Altering”

Amy Sherald’s oil painting She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them (2018).

A Stone Gallery exhibition explores race and racism, identity, and inequity of wealth and power

The exhibition Life Altering: Selections from a Kansas City Collection, on view at the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery this past January and February, featured 23 striking works by women, people of color, and artists working internationally. The pieces explored such themes as identity, race, the experience of diaspora, and the impact of technology.

Among the works was New Jersey–based artist Amy Sherald’s oil painting She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them (2018)—the title a reference to a passage in the Zora Neale Hurston novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. In it, a woman with a stoic expression, wearing a bright orange cloche hat, teal shirt, and white floral-patterned pants, faces forward. She is set against a plain coral red background and meets the viewers’ gaze. Sherald has given much attention to the woman’s outfit, capturing the seeming heaviness of the large multistrand pearl necklace she’s wearing. The title of the work pairs with this intense focus given to the woman’s appearance—the viewer is privy only to what they see on the “outside.”

First Lady Michelle Obama selected Sherald to paint her official White House portrait. The painter is also known for her striking portrait of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman fatally shot by white police officers at her home in Louisville, Ky., in 2020. The image was featured on the cover of the September 2020 issue of Vanity Fair. Sherald renders all of her subjects in grisaille—a grayish monochrome—often set against solid color backgrounds, like the painting that was in the Stone Gallery show.

“The story of why I paint my figures gray has evolved over the years. I’m not trying to take race out of the conversation, I’m just trying to highlight an interiority,” she said in a conversation with fellow artist Tyler Mitchell for Art in America in 2021. “In hindsight, I realize that I was avoiding painting people into a corner, where they’d have to exist in some universal way. I don’t want the conversation around my work to be solely about identity.”

Visitors to the Stone Gallery exhibition take in Ethiopian artist Elias Sime’s Tightrope, Familiar Yet Complex 1.

All of the exhibition’s pieces were from the collection of Kansas City art collectors Bill and Christy Gautreaux, who have set out to acquire work by diverse artists. Bill Gautreaux says that collecting these works has been part of “a journey of learning and awareness that has been life altering.” The show featured artists from all over the world and many different cultural heritages, among them Elias Sime, an Ethiopian artist based in Addis Ababa, and Vibha Galhotra, an Indian artist who lives and works in New Delhi. Lissa Cramer (MET’18), managing director of Boston University Art Galleries, worked with independent curator Leesa Fanning to put together the exhibition.

“As with every exhibition at the BU Art Galleries, this show [was] about amplifying the artists’ voices,” says Cramer. “Giving these artists space to make their statement on topics like ​​race, power, and wealth dynamics, and LGBTQIA+ rights—through such dynamic, beautiful works—[was] a timely gift to our BU community as well as to the Boston metro area.”

Explore Life Altering in the virtual gallery walk-through.